3 Yelp Conversations We Need To Have


Many business owners maintain a fierce love for Yelp and the traffic it brings to their businesses, but there are others who have a more combative relationship with the social review site. And between old accusations of inappropriate sales tactics, the controversial Yelp review filter and the site’s harsh stance on encouraging reviews, it doesn’t appear as if things are calming down any time soon. In fact, you may even say some have had enough. And at last week’s SMX West, we certainly got a taste of that.

If you read our Up Close with Yelp recap, you know what I’m talking about. It all started with a slide.

This slide.

That slide was part of Mat Siltala’s presentation and gave attendees a simple and intuitive way to encourage customers to leave reviews. Though Yelp wasn’t featured on the slide, session moderator Greg Sterling asked panelist and Yelp’s Director of Local Business Marketing Dylan Swift if Mat’s slide was something Yelp endorsed or if they viewed it was review solicitation. Dylan answered solicitation and discouraged business owners from outright asking or encouraging their customers to write reviews. You can read our full session recap to hear the drama that unfolded between Dylan and fellow panelist Will Scott (Oh, Will…), but I wanted to address a few issues that I had coming off that Yelp session. Because I think there are a couple of things worth opening up a conversation about.

Discouraging encouragement discourages reviews

Fifteen years ago you launched a new business. Not an online one, but a real brick and mortar business selling cupcakes on the corner of 1st and Main. To build awareness, you ran a bunch of promotions; you advertised in the local paper, gave free samples at local events, partnered with apartment complexes to give cupcakes to residents at move in, etc. And when people tried your cupcakes and told you they were the BEST CUPCAKES they had ever had, you smiled and, like a smart business owner, asked them to tell their friends, to pass it on, to let everyone in their network know about the experience they just had.

Back then it wasn’t called review incentivizing. It was called word of mouth. It was a natural behavior.

Last month I received an email from Yelp that caught my eye. It started off like this:

Yelp’s email went on to warn business owners NOT to ask customers to leave reviews, saying they would recognize it as solicitation and that these types of reviews may even be victims of Yelp’s review filter.

Understandably, some business owners were upset and offended by the email. And this is where I think Yelp falls off the cliff a little bit.  It’s where they start to lose people and where they isolate their core customers.

There is a big difference between asking for a review and incentivizing a review. It’s unfair for Yelp to associate a natural “pass it on” sentiment with something that is bad or ill-intentioned. The slide presented by Mat does not encourage fake reviews, it pro-actively asks REAL customers to share their experience. That’s what Yelp is based on. It’s not solicitation, its fostering word of mouth.

And frankly, we still need that fostering.

At SMX West last week Gregg Stewart from 15 Miles shared that 1 out of every 4 searchers say reviews influence their decision to buy or not buy and that 32 percent of searchers expect to find review info, yet only 23 percent have ever submitted a review themselves. They recognize the importance…but haven’t yet adopted the behavior.

As a business owner, it’s your job to teach them that behavior. Encouraging real customers to leave reviews fosters GOOD behavior, not BAD.

Don’t ask, don’t teach, don’t get. It’s that simple. Let’s not demonize an activity we all rely on.

The User Experience Fairies called. They’d like you to stop beating them.

You can’t talk about local search these days without mentioning the important of getting online reviews. Google loves them, customers love them, and OMG does Google really love them. So if you’re not supposed to ask customers to leave a review, where is this behavior supposed to come from?

Let Dylan tell you. [Taken from last week’s liveblog with my personal remarks removed.]

Dylan says don’t solicit reviews, but do what you can to make your business listing on Yelp look great. Make sure your address and phone number are up to date, add an offer to attract customers, and respond publicly to both positive and negative reviews. Off Yelp, if you just deliver a great product or service those reviews will come naturally.

I, er, I mean, I didn’t see Matt Cutts invade Dylan’s body, but it certainly sounds like him.

Someone needs to break this mythical line of thinking once and for all because now we have Yelp mimicking Google’s stance on paid links.

Absolutely before you worry about anything else you should be worrying about creating a great business, whether that means creating a great product, a service or a piece of content. But telling people that that’s ALL they need to do is and the rest will take care of itself, frankly, dangerous business advice.  I’m not sure if it was Google who started that lie or someone else, but it time for it to die a painful death.  It doesn’t matter how great your restaurant is or how awesome the experience you’re creating – if you don’t encourage people to SHARE the experience, if you don’t TELL them to share it, they very often won’t. The crazy brand evangelist-type people might, but normal people will not. They simply don’t think to. They need to be reminded and told to do it.  Again, it’s not solicitation. It’s training the behavior you want to see.

There are no mythical Content or User Fairies that swing by to check out what everyone else is doing and reward the best people.  Being great alone will not drive links or reviews to your site. Yes, you must start there and it’s the foundation for everything else, but to leave your content or business with no promotion is to drop it off in the middle of the desert with no water.  It’s going to die.

As always: Beware of glass houses

Perhaps the main source of business owners’ contention with Yelp is how it often comes off like they’re saying one thing and doing the other. Small business owners aren’t allowed to incentivize reviews by offering a discount or a product, unless they pay to do it on Yelp by getting involved in one of their programs.  We’re taught that pandering for reviews is bad, but only if you’re doing it on your own.  If you do it via Yelp’s own services, then maybe it’s okay and even encouraged. I guess it’s the same way how Google doesn’t want people incentivizing links, but then they show up at a conference and give away hoards of  new Google phones.  In both cases, you’re giving a customer something for free so they’re happy and will say nice things about your business.  None of us were born yesterday, well, except for the new babies. Yelp can thank Google for making marketers especially crotchety over plays like this.

I really do think Yelp wants to do right by small business owners and you can’t argue their power.  But as Yelp continues to grow and as they attain more power, I’d caution them against taking too many Google-like stands or demonizing the people using their site. Most small business owners really aren’t in business to game the system. They’re truly not. They want to provide a great service and they want their customers to tell other customers about it. I think Yelp knows that, they’re just being protective of their baby and they don’t want less honest businesses to come in and ruin it. And that’s fine, but we’re all protective of our babies.  If you want to create a great service, you can’t condemn the people who use it.

That’s just my two cents. What do you think?

Your Comments

  • TrafficColeman

    Yelp is a site I’m a member of but haven’t had the time to really put it to use. I heard good things about..so I thinks its time i go give it a go..Thanks Lisa

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • James Svoboda

    I agree completely Lisa. With Google’s HotPot making such incredible gains in the Online Review segment, Yelp will be regretting things in the short while if they do not change their position on this. There is going to be a point where Google decides that they no longer need Yelp reviews in Places Listings, and Yelp traffic is going to tank because of it.

    My advice to Yelp:

    You already have a vast depository of quality reviews, so it’s time to change the perspective on review encouragement and follow Mat Siltala’s example. Maybe not exactly, but help business owners create the connection between their business and their Yelp profile.

    Consider a Yelp provided Review Widget that owners can use on their site to display their reviews and help create the connection. Make sure it includes their average Star rating and Rating Distribution. Most small business owners will not want bad reviews displayed, so give them the option to select which ones can be displayed in their widget on their site.

    Think of the traffic and exposure.

    Think of the bond that will be strengthened with small businesses.

    Think of your competition doing this instead!

    • Lisa Barone

      It’s interesting to see how aggressively Google is trying to train users to leave reviews with its very much broken down HotPot system in comparison to how Yelp seems to almost be discouraging people from doing it. And you’re right, it’s really important that business owners are able to convey a connection between their business and their Yelp profile. That’s why I really like the example provided by Mat.

      I’m not sure the Yelp widget would work that only displayed positive reviews. I could see the benefit, but not sure Yelp would ever okay that. But they do need to be more proactive about building that bond and goodwill because, really, that’s how they’re going to keep and grow their user base when Google tries to sweet it all up for themselves.

      • James

        Mike Blumenthal recently relayed a staggering statistic on the growth of Google Places reviews since hotpot launched just a few months. It is kind of scare how powerful they are and how they can affect an industry in such a short amount of time. I’m actually now worried for independent review sites like Yelp.

        The widget is just the vehicle that creates the connection. If it displayed poor reviews then business owners would never use it on their sites. They would be more likely to just copy the reviews that they like and display them instead. Connection broken.

        I would think that most people would not fully trust that the reviews listed on the website would be enough to paint a complete picture of the business as compared to what is on a 3rd party site like Yelp. Having that widget/connection would enable the consumer to easily connect to the Yelp page and find the other reviews.

        The widget would end with something like “Read more reviews on Yelp” at the bottom. That’s the part would be suggestive enough to visitors to examine the bigger picture.

        BTW, great post. I’m really glad you tackled this topic.

        • Lisa Barone

          I like the idea of the widget myself, I’m just not sure Yelp is confident enough to give up that much control.

          But you’re right – the activity Google has been able to spur in such a short period of time is scary to the independents. Where they can stand out is my providing a stronger connection between brand and site than Google can.

  • Kevin Burke

    There are a million books and an entire cottage industry geared towards ASKING for and GETTING referrals. (Heck, I just bought a book on Amazon I sadly must admit) And Amazon shows 3,841 books on this subject. And really what is the difference between a “referral” – “This is a good company and good service” – and an online review that states – “This is a good company with a good service.”

    One is spoken and the other is written online, but they are really the same thing. A happy customer telling a potential customer that they RECOMMEND this company or service or person. Only the medium is different. And for Yelp to say you should not ask for a “referral” or review or whatever you choose to cal it, is ridiculous. As said above, it is just BAD business advice. We want our happy customers to tell EVERYONE and we should encourage that whenever we can (without seeming like needy insecure nuerotics).

    So ask away I say. Where would YELP be with No reviews? No one is asking for a dishonest review or gaming the system. Just a shout out.

    “TELL A FRIEND”…. we used to say. Now we can can say “Tell anyone and everyone” and write a review. Simple good business sense.

    • Lisa Barone

      There are a million books and an entire cottage industry geared towards ASKING for and GETTING referrals

      Remember the massive marketing campaign Tim Ferriss launched with the release of his new book that went over and beyond to ASK people to leave reviews for his book? And they did. In droves. And it helped me become a NYT bestseller again. The idea that people are going to think to leave a review on their own isn’t particularly realistic. People WANT to support the business and products they love, but they’re waiting for you to tell them how to do it.

      I definitely agree that “tell a friend” is no different than “tell everyone”…by leaving a review. Same concept.

      • Matthew Loop

        Great post, Lisa. Thank you for the link as well :) You’re right, people have to be told what to do and guided step-by-step in most cases.

        As a business owner, you really don’t want just passively leave the review process to chance.

        I firmly believe in systems and being highly aggressive when building your brand. “Ask and ye shall receive.”

        Continued success!

  • Kasey Skala

    Yelp doesn’t want businesses encouraging people to go online and submit reviews? Yelp, you’re a review site? Personally, I am not a fan of Yelp – their ethics or business approach, but they are putting a lot more effort into discouraging using their site than trying to make their site useful. Poor strategy.

    • Lisa Barone

      I imagine they think they’re trying to prevent business owners from being downright spammy about it, but there’s a definite middle ground there that they’re missing. I like Yelp and I think they’re doing what they think is best for users and business owners…but they’re accidentally criminalizing them in the process, IMO.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    I love your term, “User Experience Fairies”! I’m going to have to steal that from you.

    Yelp’s FAQ states that they are concerned that businesses will likely only ask for reviews from happy customers, which might skew the overall score results. However, there’s quite a lot of indication that people are more motivated to post negative reviews than positive ones, so I think the case could be made that if businesses asked for reviews from happy customers it might actually give an even more accurate cross-section of how good the business is.

    • Lisa Barone

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking your happy customers to leave a review and to share their experience. That’s what people are looking for. And even in their positive reviews they’ll probably note things they didnt like or things that didn’t 100 percent thrill them. It’s natural, it’s helpful and it’s a behavior Yelp should be encouraging not making people feel badly about. There’s no greater way to turn someone into a criminal than by treating them like one straight out of the gate.

      And steal away. ;)

    • Will Scott


      There’s a cliche along these lines:

      A happy customer will tell a friend…
      … An unhappy customer will tell everyone.

      In other words I totally agree. Outside of an incredibly small minority, the bad reviews are the only ones which will come naturally and to ask a happy customer for a review is merely an offset.

    • Tim Staines

      Chris and Will are right on target here. Asking customers for reviews is not only a natural extension of best practices in offline business, it’s also a way to ballance out the often significantly lower percentage of unhappy customers that are multiple times more likely to leave reviews.

      Lisa, I agree with your points, but I think this point is a critical missing piece of your post and I’m glad it was addressed in the comments.

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    I too think there’s a great difference between encouraging your customers to share their experience with a review and basically paying for one with discounts and promotions. It’s the same policy Facebook has about Likes (it’s not allowed to “buy” Likes with special gifts or promotions). I can live with that because I think it’s *perfectly fair*.
    But asking my customers to tell their friends if they liked my cupcakes? I’ll do it anytime, sorry.

    PS: just thought, many many many iPhone/iPad games/applications, at some point, pop a screen while you have the app active saying “if you like this app, why don’t you rate it?”. That’s the same thing, and Apple is totally fine with that, even if they are traditionally very strict on these matters.

    • Lisa Barone

      There’s definitely a difference and there’s definitely a conflict of interest when Yelp allows businesses to do exactly that, as long as they’re doing it from their platform.

  • Sabre

    Here’s what I think Yelp is forgetting, mainly because they live on the internetz and are immersed in this world: Soliciting people in a spammy way is much easier to do on the internet than it is in person. Oh, lord think of the awkwardness of some of the e-mails you get and imagine that interaction taking place in person. I . don’t. think. so.

    Also, customers aren’t idiots. Just because they walk into a restaurant doesn’t mean they’re just an eater. They probably own a computer too. People also are aware that the internet is hurting the brick and mortar business model. Why is it wrong to ask someone who enjoyed their experience to go online and spread the love. It’s simply saying, “hey, if you liked coming here and plan to come again, tell people about us or we may not be here next year!”

    Like Lisa said, it’s basically using the internet as word of mouth. Besides, I agree with what was said above about people flocking to the internet to post bad reviews. People are motivated by their anger or dissatisfaction, but passive when they are happy & satisfied. Kinda like when it seems like your significant other complains all the time about your cleaning skills.

  • Frank Reed

    Lisa – Good to see you finally getting fired up about something :-)

    This review nonsense is getting to really be nonsense. The VAST majority of people who shop at stores or do any type of commerce aren’t even aware of Yelp or any other online review site. For instance, no one shops more than my mother but she doesn’t know about this stuff. She might care if a merchant tells her (she doesn’t listen to me) which is a good thing (the part about the merchant telling her, I mean).

    We forget that those who use these sites regularly DO NOT represent the majority of people. They tend to skew younger. The people who have not grown up on this stuff need to be educated and the services themselves like Yelp or the search engines just don’t do that. Then the onus falls on the merchant but they turn around and slap a merchant’s hand for helping someone learn about Yelp?

    Geesh, wake up tech people! The world thankfully does not think like you but you desperately need to get more in tune with the world.

    Thank you. I am stepping down from my soapbox now. Have a nice weekend.

    • Lisa Barone

      Hee. +1

      That’s such a good point, though. We HAVE to encourage people to leave reviews about our business because, like you said, most normal, non-tech people don’t even know these sites existed. If Google’s going to play more prominence on reviews and we need reviews to compete, then its YOUR job as the business owner to make sure they’re aware of them.

      I think we also forget that normal people have way better intentions than us Web people do. They’re not trying to spam their way into anything, they just wanted to support the businesses they like.

  • Alysson

    Let’s say a small business owner adds a “If you think we’re awesome, review us on Yelp!” link in their e-mail signature. Now let’s say aanother small business owner adds a “If you review us on Yelp!, we’ll give you free stuff” link to their e-mail signature. The two are very different animals with very different intent.

    The first is an encouragement…a reminder…an avenue for people to easily and quickly find the Yelp! profile for that small business. The second is a bribe. I understand that the second scenario is what Yelp! is trying to avoid, but by lumping encouragement in with bribery, they are doing themselves, their business owner community and their visitors a grave disservice.

    If Yelp! can’t distinguish between encouragement and bribery, that’s a real problem. And small business owners shouldn’t pay the price for their tendency to make such short-sighted generalizations and assume that any attempt to encourage reviews involves some sort of malfeasance.

    • Lisa Barone

      Let’s say a small business owner adds a “If you think we’re awesome, review us on Yelp!” link in their e-mail signature. Now let’s say aanother small business owner adds a “If you review us on Yelp!, we’ll give you free stuff” link to their e-mail signature. The two are very different animals with very different intent.

      What if Yelp says “Advertise with us and we’ll remove competitor ads from your page”? Cause…that’s what they do.

      • Alysson

        Apparently from their perspective, extortion is cool. Simple encouragement, not so much. Great Googly Moogly, hypocrisy FTW! :) Perhaps the link should read, “Enjoy your massage? Leave a review for us on Yelp! or we’ll tell your wife about the happy ending…”

      • Will Scott

        Or, as we heard at the conference “Do a ‘Deal’ with us and we’ll double your reviews overnight”.

  • Todd Heim

    That slide says it a lot, doesn’t it? I guess Yelp doesn’t want business owners to send traffic to their service. I’m sure their competitors don’t mind…

  • Kevin Burke

    What about…

    Write a review and we will donate $xx dollars to xxx Carity for each review we receive in the next 30 days.

  • Suzanne Vara


    As a business do not encourage people to write a review on your own however, create a program with us to offer an incentive when they write a review. Is this correct? I believe that is what I am reading here and it is absolutely and completely ridiculous. Yelp is not only giving bad business advice, they are being shady as a company.

    The others who have commented have some really great points. And I believe it as you Lisa who said that we have to teach people how to leave the review. It is a matter of asking and then teaching. Sure some biz will add an incentive but that is exactly what they are doing on Yelp (when they pay for it). If a biz does not ask for and teach how to create the review whether on their own or if they are in a Yelp program how will they ever get one?

    Yelp is coming off as so shady. They are also giving themselves more credit here or better awareness. In the tech world, sure they are known, but to the vast majority of the internet users. Also, you are asking people to put up a review, that will be there for everyone to see. Not many people want to do that. Ratings people will do as it is a number scale whereas a review is asking people to use their words for the interwebs to see. Big difference. So first you have to have them get over that part and show why they should leave a review and then be sure to ask them.

    Great freaking article Lisa. I love when you give us these. Thank you.

  • Angie Schottmuller

    Regarding HotPot, it was a mess from the start. It doesn’t even function properly in Chrome, Google’s own browser.

    I think Yelp’s concern was for discouraging fake, manufactured reviews. They could have saved a lot of frustration by just pointing that out. Sending a follow-up email asking for a review after a consumer places an order is good, timely business. Likewise, for including a QR code on a window/door exit for a retail shop that asks for a Yelp review. You’re right on Lisa, “Don’t ask, don’t get!” There can never be an assumption that the user’s experience was peachy.

  • Doc Sheldon

    Lisa, I hope someone with some juice is listening over at Yelp. This isn’t just counter-intuitive, it’s counter-productive as hell! It’d be a shame if they don’t wake up and realize they’re just going to be chasing off customers.

    Great piece, as always!

  • Teri Guill

    I really loved this post and agree 100% with your thoughts. Asking customers to share their experiences is a behavior that should be enthusiastically encouraged, not discouraged or looked down upon, especially by one of the most influential review sites out there. They’re basically saying that customer reviews are only valuable if they are completely spontaneous, which is bunk — especially considering that the completely spontaneous reviews are, I think, more likely to be inspired by a bad experience. Does that really help provide a well rounded online snapshot of the business?

    I’m personally not a big fan of Yelp (I think their practices and their little review filters are a bit shady), and I also sort of wonder if some of this stance has to do with the way Yelp works. If a business asks for reviews, a fair portion of those will probably come from new or infrequent users. On Yelp, I’m pretty sure the filter algorithm penalizes you for being a newbie, and is more likely to filter out that beautiful review you just wrote — which is discouraging not only for the business, but for review-writers as well.

  • Holly

    I don’t have a good grasp of how Yelp works from a business’ perspective. But as a consumer that uses Yelp to find businesses, I am suspicious of reviewers that have only posted one review (no matter the # of stars given). That suspicion carries over to businesses that have a ton of five star reviews from reviewers who have never reviewed anything but that business.

    I’m afraid that when you ask the average customer to write you a review, they will open a Yelp account, write a review, and then forget about Yelp, never posting another review. If that happens enough, potential customers like me will not trust your rating and likely not try your business. Most business owners think that consumers look at the star rating and that is it. But that is not true. I skim the reviews, at a minimum, and give more weight to reviews from people I know and trust. Most people I know use Yelp this way. There is so much spam on Yelp, each user really needs to do their own filtering. It’s unfortunate but true of most internet sites.

    I don’t think businesses should be discouraged from soliciting reviews. But you should first start with the question, “Are you on Yelp?” If they say yes, then ask for a review. Good intentioned customers writing reviews who are not “Yelpers” could kill a business with kindness on Yelp.

  • Philippe Han

    I think there is a major point that people are missing here that is absolutely destroying the small business owners out there.

    Whoever said that no one but techies know about review sites or go to them is absolutely false.

    Studies have shown that over 80% of all Americans will research a product online before purchasing (this applies to online products, goods or services from brick and mortar businesses as well)

    This part should alarm business owners – 72% of people who research prior to buying will choose a competitors product if they find something negative about that business.

    Review sites typically rank pretty high for business names SERPS. You tell me know how a small business is suppose to survive after 2 negative reviews get posted to yelp and 8 positive reviews get filtered out.

    I’ve read that both positive and negative reviews can be filtered by Yelp. How is the business owner suppose overcome this issue. They are discouraged from encouraging reviews from their customers and even then, the likelihood is that the reviews will be filtered out.